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Review: San Francisco hospital’s pioneering AIDS ward is movingly profiled in ‘5B’

Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett (left) visits with a patient in a scene from the film “5B.” Credit: K
Activist Rita Rockett visits with a patient in the documentary “5B.”
(Ken Kobre / Verizon)

In the superbly told documentary “5B,” co-directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis vividly chronicle the story of the San Francisco General Hospital ward, which operated from 1983 to 2003 as the first in the U.S. dedicated to AIDS.

Those who saw the loss of partners, friends and family members during the early years of the AIDS crisis should find the film a somber, evocative reminder of that devastating yet galvanizing era. For others, the film is a tough, vital lesson in love, valor and compassion.

Using a trove of archival clips and photos plus a wealth of candid recent interviews with former Ward 5B nurses and doctors, AIDS survivors and relatives of the disease’s victims, the filmmakers paint a stirring portrait of the huge physical and emotional toll this mysterious scourge initially took on the gay community.

But “5B” proves as inspiring as it does unsettling with its heroic stories of the hospital staffers and allies who fought ignorance, fear, bigotry and political wrangling to protect the rights and integrity of AIDS patients.

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Testimony from key observers such as Ward 5B’s nurse manager Alison Moed, activist-performer Rita Rockett, HIV/AIDS-treatment pioneer Dr. Paul Volberding and Ward 5B nurse Mary Magee (who contracted HIV from a needle-stick accident) is moving, powerful and essential.

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‘5B’

Rated: PG-13, for thematic content including unsettling images, and some strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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Playing: Starts June 14, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Glendale; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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